Public services, such as electricity distribution, play a critical role in helping nations evolve into modern societies. The power sector is especially vital because of its profound influence on other sectors of the economy. Unfortunately, electricity distribution companies in Nigeria have played almost a reverse role, being associated with rampant corruption, mismanagement, and unreliable service provision, thus depriving a vast majority of their customers from needed services such as the supply, billing, metering, and maintenance of electrical energy.
It has been noted that complaints are a critical element of consumer contact management. Customers are rarely as motivated to speak to organisations as they are when something has gone wrong. While no one likes to hear what they have done wrong, knowing how to receive, manage and resolve customer complaints can yield significant insights that can help organisations meet the current and future needs of their customers.
Beyond making individual customers happy by addressing their problems, complaints can also be leveraged upon by an organisation to enhance product development, mitigate risk, and find opportunities for growth and innovation. Hence, while customer complaints are often seen as negative events that successful organisations should avoid; forward-looking organizations see them as vital inputs for enhancing customer satisfaction and experience.
The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) is empowered under the Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005 (ESPR Act) to make regulations for the effective operations of electricity distribution companies. One such regulation is the NERC Customer Complaints Handling: Standards and Procedures, 2006, which is made pursuant to section 96 (2) (c) & (d) of the EPSR Act. The overarching objectives of the Procedures is to establish an institutional framework for addressing Customer complaints, and also, ensure customer satisfaction by creating other avenues of redressing complaints not properly handled at Distribution company (Disco) level.
A Complaint is defined as any allegation in writing made by a complainant, which may include but not restricted to, the following:
- There exists a defect or deficiency in the electricity service provided by the Disco;
- An unfair trade practice or a restrictive trade practice undertaken by the Disco in providing electricity services;
- The Disco has for the electricity services mentioned in the complaint, charged a price in excess of the price fixed by the NERC, for supply of electricity and allied services;
- The electricity service provided by the Disco may be unsafe or hazardous;
- Recovery of expenses incurred in excess of charges approved by NERC in providing an electric line or electric plant;
- Any other act that affects the fulfilment of the contractual relation between the customer and the Disco; or is in contravention of the provisions of any Order of NERC or law for the time being in force.
By section 3 of the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards & Procedures, every Disco is obliged to set up a Customer Complaints Unit (CCU) within its premises to which an aggrieved customer may submit a complaint. The complaint can be submitted by email and the Disco’s CCU is obliged to resolve the same within 15 days. It is only when the CCU is unable to satisfactorily resolve the complaint that same is submitted to the NERC Consumer Forum (“the Forum”), established under section 3 (8) (9) and (10) the Procedures in Discos’ operating/coverage areas. The jurisdiction of the Forum is purely civil and it covers the following:
- ResolveCustomer complaints not attended to at DISCO level;
- Reverse undue charges to an aggrieved party;
- Prevent unfair business practices;
- Give direction for the withdrawal of hazardous electrical services being offered;
- Provide the basis for compensating an aggrieved party.
The Forum is required to resolve a complaint before it within 2 months of receiving the complaint.
Both the Disco and the customer have the right to appeal to NERC where a complaint/dispute is unresolved by FORUM. The Appeal must be submitted within 10 working days of the Forum’s decision. It is pertinent to note that NERC will not entertain an appeal by an appellant who, in terms of a decision by a Forum, is required to pay an amount to a Disco unless that amount has been paid.
It is noteworthy that while the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards and Procedures is a significant improvement over the former legal regime of complaint management in the electricity sector, challenges remain to this day. Most of these challenges relate to inadequate implementation/performance of Discos’ internal procedures; handling of slippages from the complaint mechanism; alleged manipulation of the data submitted by Discos; monitoring compliance of Customer Protection Regulations; optimal operations of Forum offices; and most crucially, dearth of enforcement strategies for implementation of Forum decisions.
In conclusion, electricity service consumers must be made to be more aware of their rights under the law and available channels of complaint resolution. It is crucial that aggrieved electricity services consumers are first able to exhaust the three-tiered complaint resolution framework of the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards and Procedures before resorting to the courts. This is because in a rising number of cases some courts have upheld preliminary objections to the effect that the procedure in the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards and Procedures was not first explored by the claimant before filing a court action. This position is also now being adopted by the Court of Appeal, in its recent decision in Comag Steel and Construction Company Limited v. Enugu Electricity Distribution Company Plc (Unreported Appeal No: CA/E/100/2020). In this case, the complaint at the High Court bordered on unreasonable electricity billing, illegal disconnection. The plaintiff sought orders declaring that the estimated billing, disconnection, & failure to provide prepaid meter was illegal and wrongful, etc. A Preliminary Objection was brought and upheld at the trial High Court, hence the appeal to the Court of Appeal. In summary, the Court of Appeal (Enugu Juridical Division) agreed that it was mandatory for the customer to have followed the procedure laid down in the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards and Procedures of 2006 before bringing the matter to the court.
The law is settled that where a party fails to satisfy a condition precedent to the institution of action, the action instituted by a party is premature and consequently incompetent. See Omaliko v. Awachie (2002) 12 NWLR (Pt. 780) 1. It is only logical that the remedy prescribed by law must be exhausted before recourse to the law court. See also Ajibi v. Olaewe (2003) 8 NWLR (Pt. 822) 237. It is important to note therefore the binding nature of the multi-tier complaint resolution procedure in the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards and Procedures; whether it constitutes a jurisdictional condition precedent to the commencement of action in court, and the consequences of a party’s failure to comply.